12:48 p.m. EDT
MR RATHKE: Good afternoon. So I have just a couple of things to mention at the start. First, as you may be aware, Secretary Kerry is on his way back from Turkey, where he met this morning with NATO foreign ministers who were gathered there. And he will go tonight to dinner with the GCC leaders who are in town and will participate in their meetings tomorrow. As I think you’re all aware, the Secretary will then travel tomorrow to Beijing, Seoul, and Seattle, kicking off that trip.
The other thing I would mention at the top: You probably have seen the announcement today from the Secretary on his appointment of John Kirby as the new State Department spokesman. He is with us here today. It’s his first day in the building on the job, so we certainly welcome him. And I know he looks forward to getting up here to the podium, but all in due time. And so we’re glad to have him with us.
And with that, we’ll move over to you, Brad.
QUESTION: Given the GCC meeting tonight, I just wanted to ask you about something the Secretary’s invested a lot of time in recently, and that’s this Yemen ceasefire. It seems to have gotten off to a somewhat rocky start. There was a Saudi airstrike. There’s also been fighting on the ground. What’s your assessment, and do you hope this will hold?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Right. Well, we think the ceasefire and the humanitarian pause are critically important for the people of Yemen. And you’re right; the Secretary has been actively engaged. It’s our understanding that the ceasefire has broadly held, and we urge all parties to continue to honor it and to honor the commitment to restraint. We are aware of some reports that you referenced, Brad, of some clashes. There’ve been some reports of anti-aircraft fire as well since the ceasefire began last night. Again, we call on all parties to exercise restraint to enable the ceasefire and the humanitarian pause to succeed, and to avert worsening the humanitarian crisis there.
QUESTION: Have you had any discussions with Saudi officials about the one particular airstrike that they confirmed they have taken?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have any conversations to read out on that. Of course, they’re arriving today. In fact, they had meetings at the White House just this morning. So I’d refer you back to them for the conversation there. That, I think, just ended, or should’ve just ended just a few minutes ago.
QUESTION: What about —
QUESTION: Okay, but the foreign minister’s been in town for the last few – I mean, few days. And —
MR RATHKE: Right. But the Secretary’s on his way back from Antalya. I don’t – he hasn’t been in contact this morning, that I’m aware of —
MR RATHKE: — with the foreign minister.
QUESTION: All right.
MR RATHKE: But there have been meetings at the White House. Anything more on this – on Yemen?
QUESTION: What —
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the Iranian ship?
MR RATHKE: So we can turn back to that, yes. There was some discussion we had here yesterday about that. And I don’t have an operational update or any kind of update on the location to share with you, but I would go back to what we talked about yesterday. We look to the UN to guide the international community on how to implement the humanitarian pause. Iran is no exception to this. So we support using established channels for assistance under the auspices of the UN, and we think this is the most effective way to do it. There’s no reason to go outside any of the regular, internationally recognized humanitarian systems during this humanitarian pause.
QUESTION: Have you conveyed this message directly to the Iranians?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have contacts to read out. I think our position has been made pretty clear. We’ve been clear with the UN agencies, with the UN special envoy – who, as you’re aware, is in Sana’a right now. So our point of view on this, I think, is pretty clear.
QUESTION: Will Under Secretary Sherman discuss the Yemeni issue with the Iranians in Vienna?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have – as we’ve said all along, the talks with Iran on the nuclear program are focused on the nuclear program. There is – as we’ve said, from time to time other issues will come up. I’m not aware of a specific plan to raise it, but on the margins sometimes other issues come up. But I don’t have a readout from those talks to pass on.
QUESTION: Have supplies been delivered yet?
MR RATHKE: Excuse me?
QUESTION: Have supplies been delivered yet from the hub in Djibouti to Sana’a and other cities? Has that started?
MR RATHKE: So with regard to the humanitarian shipments, it’s our understanding that there were – on the humanitarian side, that UN agencies have been able to successfully access and deliver in-country stocks, which include food, medical supplies, shelter materials, and other critical relief items. We expect additional humanitarian flights and vessels to arrive in Yemen in the coming days. Of course, the UN agencies are in the lead for coordinating that, but we – there have been some deliveries; we expect more to come in the coming days.
QUESTION: Are they going to be able to fly into Sana’a, given the repeated bombing of the airport there?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have a status report on the Sana’a airport. I believe the flights to which I referred were going into another airport, so I don’t have an update on the status of that airport.
QUESTION: Just on the Iran ship.
MR RATHKE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: You’re not opposed in principle to the notion of bilateral aid from the Iranians, is that correct? I mean, you’re saying it should go through the —
MR RATHKE: How do you mean, bilateral?
QUESTION: Well, in many conflicts around the world, the United States provides money through coordinated appeals to the United Nations, aid agencies, to the Red Cross, but it also does stuff directly on behalf of the U.S. Government through USAID or other mechanisms. The Iranians, in theory, could do the same. They don’t have to go exclusively through the UN, do they?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I – we think that coordinating, first of all, for the – to ensure that there is efficiency and effective delivery of aid, also to maintain a picture of where the needs are, the UN humanitarian agencies need to have an understanding of the aid that’s going into the country and I don’t – it’s probably obvious that in this particular situation in Yemen with the violence over the last several weeks that it’s even more important that this humanitarian pause, it’s even more important to ensure that this humanitarian pause is implemented in a way that is sustainable and has the support of all the parties and sustains that support. So that’s why we think it is important to coordinate things through the UN.
QUESTION: I can see why it’s preferable, but you’re not saying that you are opposed to the Iranians sending in their own shipments, are you?
MR RATHKE: Well —
QUESTION: Or doing their own aid operations? That – you’re not opposed to that, are you?
MR RATHKE: Well, there have been concerns about making sure that shipments that go into Yemen —
MR RATHKE: — are for the purposes that – for which they’re declared. So certainly we have a concern, to make sure that shipments going to Yemen from Iran or from others that they be focused purely on humanitarian efforts. So we do have a concern there.
QUESTION: But you’re concerned, but you’re not telling – you’re not saying, “Here, don’t send in your own aid, don’t do your own aid operations.” You’re just saying be proper and be correct and don’t —
MR RATHKE: No, we’re saying that established channels for UN aid coordination – for aid coordination through the UN should be followed in this case.
QUESTION: Should be in all cases.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: I mean in – okay.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: So Iran – I just want to clarify. So Iran has not done that – gone through those channels with a specific —
MR RATHKE: I would refer you to the UN, the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance and the other relevant UN bodies to hear an update from them. I will let them do that.
QUESTION: And who could verify that the ship is not carrying weapons and so on? Is any – is that the UN’s job?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to assign responsibility for it, but again, it’s the UN Office of the – sorry – Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance typically takes on that role of coordinating international humanitarian efforts. Now, I’m not going to get into the level of detail about verifying the contents, but certainly we think that all shipments and deliveries need to be coordinated through the UN.
QUESTION: And one follow-up.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you know if Yemen came up in the discussions between the Secretary and the Russians yesterday?
MR RATHKE: Well, I believe the Secretary made reference to that in his press availability after. I think if you look at the topics on the agenda, that was certainly one of the international – regional issues that was important. Of course, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine were the main focus of the conversation, but I believe the Secretary spoke to that as well, that Yemen is an important area for coordination.
QUESTION: Yeah. Do you know what exactly he would bring up with the Russians regarding Yemen?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have a more detailed readout of the discussion. I’m happy to check and see if we have more that we can share. Of course, we’ve stressed throughout that we need to get back to the UN-led dialogue process that is part of the Gulf – the GCC initiative, the national dialogue, as well as the UN Security Council resolutions that support it. So we certainly want to see a transition back to that UN-led process.
QUESTION: Another topic?
MR RATHKE: Sorry, I think – let’s, yeah, talk more about Yemen. Yeah.
QUESTION: It seems Iran is insisting on sending their aid via the cargo ship directly to Yemen, and an Iranian general threatened Saudi Arabia yesterday that if they block the entry of the ship, they’re going to use fire. Do you feel Iran is sending these warships to Yemen to send a provocative message to the GCC leaders on the eve of their meeting with the President at Camp David?
MR RATHKE: Well, I won’t ascribe a motive, but we’ve certainly seen the reports, as we talked about yesterday, of Iranian warships in the area. And I would repeat what we discussed before, which is: We discourage any provocative actions and we encourage the provision of assistance through established channels. So we certainly want to see all sides avoid any provocative actions. I would include in that the statement you referenced.
QUESTION: Are you concerned about any possible clashes between the Iranian warships and the Saudi or Egyptian warships in the region?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, we think that aid should be organized and coordinated through the UN, and we discourage any actions that could be provocative. I think that applies broadly.
QUESTION: And what role is the U.S. playing in this regard?
MR RATHKE: In which regard?
QUESTION: In the sea there, the U.S. warships are playing any role or not?
MR RATHKE: Well, we, of course, maintain a naval force posture in the Persian Gulf in order to be prepared for a range of contingencies, but I’m not going to get ahead of things. We’re working with the international community to ensure that donors provide aid through the established channels, but that’s – so we certainly have our assets in the region. But I’m not going to foreshadow more than that.
QUESTION: Are you suggesting that this would have been a part of the Roosevelt Carrier Group’s mission?
MR RATHKE: No, I’m not trying to suggest anything. I’m simply underscoring that we have our force posture in the region to deal with a range of contingencies.
Same topic, Lesley?
QUESTION: Yeah. Just do you know how much the U.S. is sending in aid? Sorry if you’ve addressed this before.
MR RATHKE: Well, I didn’t address it yesterday, and let me – I don’t think I’ve got the most recent update. Of course, the – there were announcements made on the Secretary’s trip last week about additional aid to Yemen.
MR RATHKE: And we’re happy to check and make sure you’ve got the updated figure in case there’s been anything since then.
QUESTION: Right. There was the 65 million. So nothing further?
MR RATHKE: That was an additional, but I think —
QUESTION: There was —
MR RATHKE: — the total that we’ve been providing to Yemen is in the hundreds of millions, I believe. Certainly, it’s over 100 million. We can get the exact figure —
MR RATHKE: — and get that back to you.
QUESTION: I realize this is a unique situation, but is there any precedent for the United States opposing all aid outside of the UN’s kind of oversight, or that all aid – it would oppose aid that’s not done through the United Nations? It seems to me like I’ve never heard this as kind of a U.S. policy before.
MR RATHKE: Happy to look and see if this is —
MR RATHKE: — if there is a precedent.
QUESTION: That would be great. Thank you.
MR RATHKE: Yeah. Okay. So you wanted to switch?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead, Nicolas.
MR RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: What’s your assessment of the situation on the ground? Do you think that there is a military coup or that the president is still in charge?
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. So we’re watching the situation in Burundi very closely and with great concern. First off, let me say we call on all parties immediately to end the violence and to exercise restraint. I would draw to your attention a statement by the East African Community leaders today. They’ve been meeting in Tanzania. And we support the statement by the East African Community calling for an end to the violence and for peaceful elections in line with the electoral laws and in the spirit of the Arusha agreement.
We also call on all stakeholders to take steps to restore the conditions that are required to hold timely and credible elections. So we will continue to monitor the situation. We will take targeted measures where appropriate, including, when appropriate, by refusing U.S. visas to impose consequences on individuals who, among other things, participate in, plan, or order widespread or systematic violence against the civilian population.
Now, with respect to the description of the events, we’re monitoring the situation closely. We’re not ready to draw a conclusion about the situation on the ground. It’s quite fluid, so we are watching it hour by hour.
QUESTION: So as of now, for the time being, the president is still – according to the U.S. Government, the president is still in charge?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, the situation is fluid. We are aware, certainly, of reports from some suggesting a desire to take power by the military. We’re not able to confirm that, and we’re watching the situation on the ground to see how that develops so we’re not – we’re just keeping a close eye on it.
QUESTION: What’s the ambassador telling you about the situation on the ground?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, it’s – there have been – on the one hand, we’ve spoken out about the use of violence against protestors, which is why we’re calling on all sides to exercise restraint. Our view on the question of the presidential candidacy of President Nkurunziza is also well known. So we’re trying to keep in touch with figures on the ground. As well, I would point out that the meetings in Tanzania with the East African Community – Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas-Greenfield is there representing the United States, and their delegation – the U.S. delegation spoke with advisors to President Nkurunziza on the margins of that meeting. She and the president did not have the opportunity to speak before his departure, but we have been in touch with his advisors.
QUESTION: So she spoke with his advisors but not with him directly?
MR RATHKE: Our delegation spoke with his advisors. I have not – I don’t have the specificity to know whether she personally participated, but the point is we’ve been in touch with the president’s team.
QUESTION: Is there a reason why you can’t say from this podium whether President Nkurunziza is, in fact, still the sitting president of Burundi?
MR RATHKE: Well, he’s the president of Burundi. I think what Nicolas was asking about is what the effect has been of the announced intention by at least one military officer to take power. And on that, I simply don’t have the on-the-ground facts to provide an assessment, but the president remains – he’s the elected president. The questions about a possible third term are about elections that are upcoming that haven’t taken place yet. So in that regard, yes, and that’s why also it’s important for the United States and why we join in supporting the East African Community leaders’ statement about the importance of the constitutional process and about being – holding elections that are peaceful, that are in accordance with the spirit of the electoral laws and the Arusha agreement.
Same topic, Pam?
MR RATHKE: Go ahead.
QUESTION: You said a U.S. delegation had spoken to some of the president’s advisors. Can you clarify the timeline for that? Was that today? Was that after the so-called coup took place? And if so, can you elaborate a little bit on the nature of that discussion? And then secondly, what is the status with the U.S. diplomatic staff in Burundi? Are there any plans to pull back because of security concerns?
MR RATHKE: So on the first question, I don’t have the timeline. I believe those conversations were today. But whether they happened before these reports from Burundi or after, I don’t know. The – with regard to our mission, our Embassy – all of our staff are safe and accounted for. Our Embassy – so our personnel are on the ground. I don’t have any announcements to make about that. I would highlight for you that we updated our Travel Warning a couple of days ago for Burundi, and we recommend that U.S. citizens avoid any nonessential travel to the country, and this is in line with – and so I think anyone who consults the Travel Warning, you can get further details there.
MR RATHKE: Yep.
QUESTION: You were talking about measures that could be taken.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Are you talking about measures against those that – against – I want to say coup-takers. (Laughter.) That’s not the word. But are you talking about measures specifically against those that incite violence, or measures against who particularly?
MR RATHKE: Well, they would —
QUESTION: And how soon?
MR RATHKE: I won’t specify a timeline, but we have the ability to take measures such as visa restrictions as a way of imposing consequences on individuals – I’ll leave it at that – who participate in or plan widespread or systematic violence against the civilian population based on political opinion.
QUESTION: Like in South Sudan, where you haven’t – despite what, 18 months of violence – imposed sanctions on the leaders or the mutineers? Is that right?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m happy to talk separately about South Sudan, but —
QUESTION: Are you —
MR RATHKE: — I’m making the point that we consider this a possibility. In the case of Burundi, that’s why we think it’s important as a way of underscoring our call for restraint on all – by all parties.
QUESTION: Are you moving closer to sanctions in South Sudan?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have an update for you on that. Happy to take a look and get back to you.
QUESTION: But you still plan to hold people responsible for or accountable for any possible violations?
MR RATHKE: Yeah. And I think we’ve also – that’s been indicated in our statements on South Sudan, but I’m happy to look into those and come back with more details.
QUESTION: But when you talk about —
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: — imposing visa restrictions on persons who might be engaged or in planning or carrying out violence against people – I mean, we’re not talking about massive riots in the street at this moment. I mean, we’re talking about what seems to be a struggle for power. Are the people involved in trying to depose the government also subject to these kinds of restrictions, potential sanctions, and so on?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I think we’ll see what the – what exactly transpires in the course of today and in the coming days, and we’ll respond accordingly. I think when I mentioned the visa restrictions, keep in mind as well that over the last few days there have been reports of violence used against demonstrators by the police. So that’s also part of the backdrop for raising that.
QUESTION: Are you considering – is the U.S. considering more of a direct role in trying to resolve this? And does that include —
MR RATHKE: Well, we are directly engaged with —
QUESTION: Do you believe that the president should step down given the violence that’s going on?
MR RATHKE: Well, our view on the president standing for a third term has been pretty clear, I think; we consider that to be inconsistent with the Arusha agreement. And as well, I think it’s important to highlight the role of the East African Community, because this is a view shared by many countries in the region. And that’s why the statement from the leaders of the East African Community today about the Arusha agreement, about the need for peaceful elections that are in accordance with that agreement as well with the electoral laws, is important.
QUESTION: So a follow-up on that: Given your strong disagreement with what you repeated, his possible third term, would the U.S. be pleased if the president steps down quietly?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, I think that this is – the question of the way forward in Burundi is one that needs to respect the views of the Burundian population. Also, we’re talking with the stakeholders in Tanzania who are gathered. I don’t have a fuller readout of Assistant Secretary Thomas-Greenfield’s meetings there. As we do, happy to provide more information on that.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. ever considered Nkurunziza a good ally of the U.S.? Is he someone that the U.S. has favored in that position?
MR RATHKE: I’m not going to issue kind of a judgment on his first two terms. I would simply highlight, once again, our point on the third term.
Do we want to move on to a new topic? Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. I got a bunch of questions on Asia.
MR RATHKE: Sure.
QUESTION: One, do you have any reaction to the report that North Korea’s defense minister was executed by anti-aircraft gun? It seems a different way of capital punishment than practiced here, for example.
MR RATHKE: Well, we’ve seen the press reports about the execution of North Korean officials. Not in a position to confirm the – any of those specifics. But these disturbing reports, if they are true, describe another extremely brutal act by the North Korean regime. These reports, sadly, are not the first in this regard. But with regard to the specifics, I’m not in a position to confirm (inaudible).
QUESTION: And where does the United States currently stand on bilateral talks with North Korea, independent of this latest report? Where are you on possibly reaching out to North Korea given the whole host of destabilizing activity there you accuse them of?
MR RATHKE: Well, with regard to the Six-Party talks, our position remains that in close consultation with our partners and allies, that we remain open to dialogue with the DPRK. But the burden is on North Korea to take meaningful actions toward denuclearization and to refrain from provocations. So we’re committed to working with our partners and our allies in the region to achieve consensus on the terms for negotiations that would be credible and authentic.
QUESTION: So you’re open to U.S.-North Korean talks within the scope of a broader six-party talks?
MR RATHKE: Yeah – well, I wouldn’t want to slice and dice that. I can check and see if we have a particular position about the bilateral versus multilateral parts of that.
QUESTION: You said “dialogue” —
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: — which by definition implies two parties.
MR RATHKE: Your knowledge of etymology is good.
MR RATHKE: I’m happy to look and see if there’s more about —
MR RATHKE: But again, the overall message here is that the North Korean regime has to take credible steps toward denuclearization.
QUESTION: Why float this idea now?
MR RATHKE: Excuse me?
QUESTION: Why float this idea now? What is it —
MR RATHKE: Well, no, I’m not floating the idea now. I’m responding to a question Brad asked.
QUESTION: No, no, no, but —
MR RATHKE: We’re not —
QUESTION: No, but —
MR RATHKE: We’re not floating ideas. This has been our longstanding position which we’ve talked about frequently. It hasn’t changed. It’s – this isn’t a new idea.
QUESTION: But it’s come up in recent days, and we had not heard much discussion from this podium about the status of the Six-Party Talks. I mean, they —
MR RATHKE: No, I’d disagree with that, Roz. I’ve been asked – I personally have been asked over the last few weeks on a couple of occasions about it and I’ve said the same thing that I’ve talked about with Brad just now: We remain open to that, but the burden is on North Korea to take credible steps.
QUESTION: Can we change topic?
MR RATHKE: Said.
QUESTION: New topic, please.
QUESTION: North Korea.
MR RATHKE: Oh, okay. We’ll take one more on that, then we’ll come to you, Said.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: About North Korea announcement of the launch of – from submarine of ballistic missile. There is a report about U.S. officials saying that it was not actually launched from submarine, and also there are some experts saying similar things. Do you have any analysis or —
MR RATHKE: The second part of your question – the first part was about the alleged missile launch, but what was the —
QUESTION: Yeah, announcement. And there are people who say that it was not actually a launch from submarine —
MR RATHKE: So I don’t have an analysis to offer about that incident. I know there’s been a lot written about it, but I don’t have an analysis to offer.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) new topic? New topic?
QUESTION: Can we wrap Asia really fast before we go to Middle East or —
MR RATHKE: Yeah, okay. All right.
QUESTION: Two quick ones.
MR RATHKE: We’ll be right back to you Said. Yeah.
QUESTION: And do you have any update on the – whether the U.S. is going to do anything to help the Rohingya? It’s come up the last couple days, and there’s a lot of stranded individuals at sea, it looks like.
MR RATHKE: Yes. So we are concerned by reports of thousands of additional Rohingya migrants on land and at sea in boats and who may need humanitarian protection and assistance. We’re following the situation closely and we are in contact with the UNHCR – High Commissioner for Refugees – as well as the International Organization for Migration. We have – with regard to what steps we are taking of course, we are supporters of the UNHCR as well as the IOM. I can get some figures and a breakdown of some particulars of our assistance if that’s interesting. We are certainly committed to working with governments in the region who are dealing with the brunt of this burden.
QUESTION: But we’re not sending military assets or anything else to —
MR RATHKE: No, no, nothing to report on that. I would highlight, though, since – just since the fiscal year 2014, we’ve provided $109 million in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable Burmese, including Rohingya, in Burma as well as in the region. So these are important programs for us to provide assistance to vulnerable populations.
QUESTION: And then let me clear one more out of the way —
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: — and then I’ll yield to my esteemed colleague.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you have any comment on the defeat of the trade bill in the Senate, given that you’ve spent so much time on TTIP and on the pivot writ large, about redefining America’s role in the Asia Pacific? And this seems to be a pretty devastating loss for a lot of what this building has tried to accomplish in recent months and years.
MR RATHKE: Well, a few weeks ago, the Senate Finance Committee reached a bipartisan compromise on tough, fair, and transparent rules for pursuing high-standard trade agreements, and it’s disappointing that the Senate was unable to take a common-sense step forward and begin debate on bipartisan legislation. So – but procedural challenges like this aren’t new. I would refer you to the White House for more details about the Administration’s overall engagement on this issue. As I think you’ve seen, yesterday the President met with some senators to talk about the issue.
As far as the Administration’s policy, our commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, also to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, remains and we are committed to working with members of the Senate to move this important priority legislation forward.
QUESTION: Do you fear your interlocutors in Asia will not take you as seriously given that you’ve sort of had your legs cut out from under you on this, at least at this stage, that this hampers the effort?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think at this stage, again, it was a disappointment, but I don’t think that’s the end of the story. We remain engaged with our partners. As we’ve talked with our partners in the TPP negotiations, each country has its domestic political situation with regard to approval to work through. We’ve continued to work on the substance of the agreement throughout. We will continue to work with our partners as the Administration will continue to work with Congress.
QUESTION: A side —
MR RATHKE: Sorry, no, Said’s been waiting patiently, Roz.
QUESTION: But I just —
MR RATHKE: No, no, Roz, you’ve had quite a few questions already. Go ahead, Said.
MR RATHKE: I did see that there was a report about that from – it’s not entirely clear if that’s a new step in that regard. Certainly, our position on this is well known, so I don’t have anything to add to it.
QUESTION: So are you in disagreement with the Vatican on this issue?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think you’re quite familiar with the U.S. position on it, Said.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me ask you —
MR RATHKE: And our position hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: Let me ask you this: Do you think that the Vatican recognition of the state of Palestine places this recognition in a sort of position of urgency that it must be done? Moral urgency?
MR RATHKE: No. Again, Said, our position on a two-state solution remains the same, and we take note of what’s happened with the Vatican. But —
MR RATHKE: — I won’t over-interpret it.
QUESTION: — just to follow up on the trade bill: Some senators are trying to tie it to sort of delegitimizing or making illegal the boycott of Israel and the settlements. Do you have any comment on that?
MR RATHKE: I’m not aware of those specific provisions, and in general on trade legislation, it would be the U.S. Trade Representative and the White House that would comment in the first instance. But I’m not familiar with the specific details.
QUESTION: Well, it was an amendment, I guess, done by Senator Cardin and his counterparts in the House, and that passed committees in both the House and the Senate. You have no comment on that?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have a comment on that specific provision, sorry.
Yes, go ahead.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: So International Crisis Group just released a report yesterday. They criticized the way the United States and other coalition countries provide military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga. First of all, have you seen the report? And —
MR RATHKE: I haven’t seen the report. I think our stance on our support to the Kurdish forces, to the Peshmerga, remains the same. We provide very significant assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga, so I think there can be no question about our commitment to supporting the Kurdish forces. But we do that in coordination through the central Iraqi Government.
QUESTION: Are you – is there any concerns that providing military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga might destabilize the region furthermore in the future, as the report states?
MR RATHKE: Well, again, our policy is – it remains the same. We believe that a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq. We support the Iraqi constitution. And we have an active relationship, of course, with officials in the Kurdish region, as well as with the Peshmerga. So we see that as strengthening the – Iraq overall, and that’s why our policy is focused on a united, democratic, and federal Iraq.
QUESTION: Also on Iraq?
MR RATHKE: Yes. Yeah, Iraq. Yes, go ahead, Lesley.
QUESTION: There are reports – well, Iraq’s defense ministry has said that ISIS’s number two has been killed in Iraq. Can you confirm any of this?
MR RATHKE: I’m not able to confirm that. I think if anyone in the U.S. Government will know first, it would be my colleagues at the Pentagon. But I don’t have confirmation.
QUESTION: Would it matter if he were killed? What does it say about the current strength of ISIL?
MR RATHKE: Well, our view on ISIL is that its momentum has been halted; they’ve lost control of territory; and we believe that ultimately they will be defeated. So that’s certainly the way we look at ISIL.
QUESTION: We actually had (inaudible) saying that ISIL had made gains near Homs in Syria and that it is actually expanding its reach in Syria. Does that worry you, or do you actually not see that as the overall trajectory there?
MR RATHKE: I’m not familiar with that report. I hadn’t seen it.
MR RATHKE: So we’ve tried not to do a battlefield analysis on shifting lines on a day-to-day basis. I think if you look at the extent of ISIL’s reach about a year ago and look at where it is now, you see that it has been pushed back in many, many places, but —
QUESTION: I guess it depends when you start to look and – I mean, if you look at two years ago to where they are now, they have a lot more than what they had two years ago.
MR RATHKE: Well, and ISIL is a serious threat. That’s why we’ve mounted a coalition to oppose them. But my point is that since that coalition has been brought together and has taken so many different steps, that it’s had a real effect —
QUESTION: (Inaudible) just to follow up on —
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: But ISIL, I mean, their biggest prize that they’ve gotten so far is Mosul. And there was so much talk about a spring offensive to liberate Mosul and so on, and nothing really is happening (inaudible).
MR RATHKE: Well, we haven’t put a timeline on that. That will be a decision made by the Iraqi leadership. We are supporting Iraq through training, through equipment, and through our joint operation centers in Baghdad, in Erbil. But as we’ve said quite a few times, when they decide to undertake an operation to liberate Mosul will be an Iraqi decision, and I think the Iraqis want to do it when the time is right.
QUESTION: Most reports show that they are actually strengthening their presence in Mosul, not loosening it, so to speak. So they – they govern it as an independent entity and they do from traffic to finances to currency to all these things. They’re solidly in control. So wouldn’t it be safe to assume that the lack of this offensive, or the joint operations, as you call them, or the delay basically helps ISIS control more of that territory?
MR RATHKE: We’ve said all along that this will take time. So it’s – it is important. We’re working with our Iraqi partners to that end; also with our international partners.
Go ahead, Guy.
QUESTION: Thanks, Jeff. Just back to this talk about the International Crisis Group report, the report also went into quite a bit of detail actually about how the current U.S. and coalition policy of channeling the weapons through the ministry of defense in Baghdad is making Kurdish – factions of the Peshmerga that are aligned with different political factions within the KRG and around wider Kurdistan fight amongst each other and be more susceptible from Iranian military influence. My question for you – this report specifically called on the United States and its partners in the coalition to create a central command that included Baghdad and these various other factions to redefine the policy of distributing weapons to the various militias in Iraq. And there are others in Iraq that are calling for that right now. I’m wondering if that’s something you can comment on. Is it something being considered seriously in this building by perhaps General Allen, Mr. McGurk, and others?
MR RATHKE: Well, as I said in response to the earlier question, I haven’t seen that report, so I’m not familiar with its contents and I don’t want to —
QUESTION: I just told you what the contents were.
MR RATHKE: Well, I appreciate you’re offering the summary, but —
QUESTION: I also wrote about it. It’s in today’s paper if – it’s laid out fairly clearly. (Laughter).
MR RATHKE: You need to send me your articles. I hadn’t seen that one.
MR RATHKE: But our policy is in support of a united and federal and democratic Iraq. And also our policy with regard to arms transfers, again, is designed to reinforce that policy. I’m happy to look and see if there’s anything additional to add on that, but I’m not aware of any discussion about changing – about the United States trying to suggest changes to how Iraq organizes its security forces writ large.
Go ahead, Pam.
QUESTION: Jeff, a couple questions on Cuba. I know you hit on some of this yesterday, but I wanted to circle back. Is there anything new in the way of a timeline for announcing ambassadors as the diplomatic process moves forward? Does it look like there may be announcements before the end of this month? And then secondly, is there any initial indication on where the Cuban embassy – Cuba’s embassy in the United States would be located? Does it look like it would be back at the old facility on 16th Street?
MR RATHKE: Well, let me take those in reverse order. First of all, we’re not at a point yet where we have reached successful conclusion of our talks to re-establish diplomatic relations and to establish embassies in each other’s capitals. So I’m not going to comment on the location. Of course, Cuba has an interests section here now, but as for any of their plans should we finalize these talks, I’ll let them speak to that.
With regard to the question about exchanging ambassadors, you’re right, this came up yesterday. And we see the exchange of ambassadors as being a logical step once the re-establishment of diplomatic relations is complete, not the other way around. So we do not have a set timeframe for the conclusion of the talks on re-establishing diplomatic relations. We are – we continue to work on that. But I don’t have any announcement to make in that regard, so I don’t have anything more to say than I did yesterday.
QUESTION: Can I ask —
MR RATHKE: Anything else on that topic?
QUESTION: — a question on Kuwait? Kuwait?
MR RATHKE: Yeah, just a moment.
QUESTION: Very quickly.
MR RATHKE: We’ll go to your colleague on your right and then we’ll come to you.
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So the last day, Secretary Kerry mentioned that United States and Russia continue to disagree on certain components or facts about Ukraine. Can you tell what are these components exactly? And the second question is: Also, Secretary Kerry said that United States is ready to put pressure on Ukraine to fully implement Minsk II agreements. So do you have any readout of meeting Secretary Kerry with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Klimkin? Thank you.
MR RATHKE: All right. Well, so first of all, with regard to the areas where we disagree, I think the Secretary spoke to this yesterday, but I’m happy to reiterate. We – as the Secretary told his colleagues among the NATO foreign ministers this morning, we consider this a critical moment for Russia and the separatists it backs to live up to the Minsk commitments, the Minsk agreement; that the OSCE needs to get into the conflict zones, as they are mandated to do in the Minsk agreements, and especially in Shyrokyne and places like it that I would highlight are beyond the ceasefire line on the Ukrainian side and where there is still – there are still attacks happening. That needs to stop. We need to see the full implementation of Minsk. We need to see the working groups that are called for in the Minsk agreement and under the trilateral contact group to begin working. And this – the separatists are not engaging constructively in those working groups. That needs to change.
And with – I would also highlight the need to withdraw heavy weapons systems verifiably. That includes Russian military air defense systems, command and control equipment. All of this is called for by the Minsk agreement – need to halt the flow of fighters into eastern Ukraine, establish control over the international border, need humanitarian access, the release of all political prisoners – all of these are things where progress needs to be made.
You made reference as well to Ukraine and the Secretary’s comments. I think that it’s important to point out that, as the Secretary said in answering that question, he said that the resort to force by any party would be extremely destructive. But I think we should distinguish between the question about Ukraine and President Poroshenko’s comments with relation to Donetsk, I believe, which was a speech, not the initiation of any action – there’s no impending offensive of that sort – whereas separatists on a daily basis continue to breach the Minsk agreement through their attacks.
I don’t have a readout of the meeting with Foreign Minister Klimkin. It happened just before the Secretary got on the plane.
QUESTION: But he didn’t – I mean, Kerry didn’t say it yesterday after talks with Lavrov about that only Russians or Russian-backed separatists breaking the agreements. He talked maybe about different details – I mean, just united actions from both sides. I mean —
MR RATHKE: No, I think the Secretary was quite clear about what we see happening on the ground in eastern Ukraine.
Yes, go ahead.
MR RATHKE: Well, I think the White House did an on-the-record call two days ago about the GCC summit in which that was raised, so I’d refer you back to their comments for this.
QUESTION: Just back to Russia and the U.S. for a minute. More broadly, you think that yesterday’s meetings were the start of the reset of the reset between the two countries?
MR RATHKE: No, this was not a business-as-usual event. The Secretary delivered a strong message to President Putin with regard to Ukraine. They also talked about the Iran nuclear negotiations. They talked about Syria. They talked about other international issues. But I think the Secretary was very clear with regard to Ukraine. Right after the meeting, the Secretary called President Poroshenko; they spoke yesterday. I don’t have a detailed readout of that, but they spoke yesterday following the meetings. Of course, the Secretary met with Foreign Minister Klimkin this morning in Antalya. And the Secretary also went to Antalya to talk to his NATO foreign minister colleagues and update them on those talks and why he considered it important to go to – to have that dialogue and to speak directly and clearly with the decision-making leadership in Russia.
QUESTION: Yeah. Very quick on Kuwait, also related to human rights. Apparently, there is an activist, even a former parliament member – his name is Khalid al-Shatti – who is being tried for slander. Apparently, he tweeted about – against the Saudi-led coalition bombardment of Yemen or mosques there – or mosque or something like this. Do you know anything about the case? We understand that —
MR RATHKE: I don’t know anything about that case.
QUESTION: — somebody sent you information on this case and yours – and that the embassy in Kuwait is aware of it?
MR RATHKE: No, I don’t have anything on that.
QUESTION: Could you find out, please? Khalid al-Shatti —
MR RATHKE: I’m not familiar with the case. If I get anything on that, I’m happy to share it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR RATHKE: Yeah.
QUESTION: Today the prime minister of Israel sent his instruction – the instructions of his cabinet to Knesset, and it had language very similar to previous governments about wanting to support the peace process and reach a peace agreement at some point with the Palestinians. Does the consistency of the language assuage some of your concerns about this Israeli Government taking a new path that might be detrimental to the peace process?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think you may have seen, but if not I would mention that there was an interview with the President yesterday that was published; I think it was done with Asharq. And as the President said, we continue to believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is necessary, it is just, and that it’s possible. And that’s why, of course, the United States is so committed and has worked so hard over the years for a two-state solution.
We look to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to demonstrate through their policies and their actions a genuine commitment to a two-state solution. We think that’s the way to rebuild trust and avoid a cycle of escalation. So that’s the way we see the way forward.
QUESTION: Do you see what the prime minister put forward today as a genuine commitment?
MR RATHKE: I haven’t read the document. We’ll – I’ll take a look and —
QUESTION: Okay. It’s not that long.
MR RATHKE: Okay.
QUESTION: Well, the part that’s pertinent to what you guys care about, I think.
MR RATHKE: All right. So I don’t have a comment on it specifically. I can take a look and see if we have more to say.
QUESTION: The President also – he said a couple of things. He said, one, that the U.S. was taking a hard – a long look or a hard look at U.S. policy —
MR RATHKE: I think “hard look” may be what he said, yeah.
QUESTION: Hard look. Is – I mean that’s kind of similar to the language he said at the time of the election. Has anything really developed out of that hard look? I mean, the policy is what it was before, am I right?
MR RATHKE: You mean the U.S. policy?
QUESTION: U.S. policy toward – toward Mideast peace.
MR RATHKE: Yes. And I think we’ve said also that after the election it was up to Prime Minister Netanyahu to assemble a coalition, to come up with a – with its policies, to constitute a government, and then we would look for their – look at their policies and look to their actions.
MR RATHKE: So I don’t have any update since then. I think the government has just been formed, so the document you referred to —
MR RATHKE: — is a next step. So I’ll take a look and see if we have more to say.
QUESTION: So that – I mean, on the policy front, that would be, I guess, one of the things you would look for or look to. And —
MR RATHKE: Yeah, certainly policies as well as actions.
QUESTION: And then actions-wise, I guess it’s a bit early, but there haven’t been any actions, per se, at this point that —
MR RATHKE: I think the government has just been formed, so yeah, I think that’s – I think you’re right.
QUESTION: So is there anything that has happened yet since the election that would – you said at the time you would re-examine or take a hard look. Has anything happened up to this point that would make you change U.S. policy toward a two-state solution at this point, in either the actions or the policies?
MR RATHKE: Well, I think also the look or the so-called – the hard look, taking a hard look at our approach – it’s about the best way to achieve a two-state solution.
MR RATHKE: It’s not about revising that policy goal. I think that’s – so I would say that first. And I don’t have any additional analysis to do on it. I think we’ll look at policies and actions going forward.
QUESTION: So this hard look I guess continues. Nothing’s changed yet —
MR RATHKE: I don’t have an update to offer —
QUESTION: — from the United States.
MR RATHKE: — or to change on that.
QUESTION: But Jeff —
QUESTION: Quick follow-up on —
MR RATHKE: Sorry. Said, and then we’ll go back to Michel. On that same topic?
QUESTION: Really – yeah, on the same topic, just a quick follow-up.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: You said that both sides need to demonstrate their commitment to the two-state solution.
MR RATHKE: Yes, that’s right.
QUESTION: What do you expect the Palestinians to do to demonstrate their commitments?
MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t have new steps to outline. I think we’ve talked in the past that we want to see a commitment on both sides.
QUESTION: So you want them to, let’s say, stop whatever efforts they’re doing at the United Nations or at the International —
MR RATHKE: Well, certainly, our point of view on the ICC issue is extremely clear.
QUESTION: And you would also want the Israelis to stop building settlements, for instance, or to rescind the most —
MR RATHKE: Our position on settlements is also clear. So I’m not going to issue a prescription —
QUESTION: I understand.
MR RATHKE: — right here for the Palestinian Authority, but —
QUESTION: But rescinding the decision taken last week, for instance, to expand the settlements most recently announced – that would be a gesture or a demonstration of goodwill towards the state, right?
MR RATHKE: Well, our position on construction in East Jerusalem, as I explained last week, is longstanding. It hasn’t changed. I’m not going to turn – our policies are well known on this, Said. I’m not going to turn those into a specific prescription for a specific step that needs to happen right now. Those are things we’ll discuss in our diplomatic exchanges with the relevant parties, but I’m not going to read those out from the podium.
QUESTION: But the reason this particular settlement should hold some significance is because it was announced upon the arrival of Vice President Biden back in 2010.
MR RATHKE: I’m aware of the history.
QUESTION: And now they’ve expanded it, okay?
MR RATHKE: I’m aware of the history, and I think I spoke to this last week.
QUESTION: Yeah. The document that Brad was talking about – there is no mention for the two-state solution, and especially that Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t recognize the two-state solution before the elections. To what extent are you concerned about the platform of this government?
MR RATHKE: Well, that’s – as we were just discussing with Brad, the United States policy is that we support a two-state solution. That’s what we’ve been working toward all these years through multiple administrations from both parties, and that continues to be our policy. So that’s also why I said in the discussion with Brad that we look for policies and actions that demonstrate a genuine commitment to a two-state solution. I think I’ll leave it at that for now.
Yes, in the back, and then we’ll come forward to you, Abby.
MR RATHKE: Yes.
QUESTION: It’s about – Japanese ruling parties agreed on the entire text of a national security bill that expand the Self-Defense Force – role of Self-Defense Force. And Japanese Government is slated to adopt the bill at the cabinet meeting tomorrow. So do you have any comment on that?
MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not familiar with the content of that bill, so I’m not going to comment on its specifics. But certainly, there has been a process over a number of months in Japan to address questions of the role of the Self-Defense Forces, and I think we’ve spoken out multiple times in support of the way in which Japan has approached this, the transparency, and the extremely positive role that Japan has played not only in its region but also globally in – over the last decades. So I think you see evidence of this in the 2+2 meetings that happened a couple of weeks ago, as well as Prime Minister Abe’s visit. I don’t have the specifics on that one.
Abby, go ahead.
QUESTION: This may have been discussed last week, but there was a joint DOD-State workshop with countries in the Lake Chad Basin region about protecting their borders, Boko Haram. Is there a readout from that workshop or any analysis on that?
MR RATHKE: I don’t have a readout of it. We, of course, have been engaged with countries around the Lake Chad Basin and more generally to support their ability to defend their borders. We’ve also been engaged with them in support of the fight against Boko Haram. I can take a look and see if we have any specifics on the outcomes of that meeting.
Okay. Nicolas and then we’ll see if we have anything more to wrap up.
MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The British newspaper The Guardian has a story saying that a independent commission founded by the U.S., the EU, and the UK has produced enough evidence to prosecute Bashar al-Assad and 20 people around him before a war crime tribunal. So are you aware of this report, and would you welcome such a move?
MR RATHKE: Well, I wasn’t aware of that report, so I don’t have a comment on it. But I think our point of view on Assad and his having lost his legitimacy has been clear for some time. So we certainly don’t see a future for him in Syria, and I think our point of view on that hasn’t changed.
All right. Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:46 p.m.)